Thursday, January 29, 2004

Hateful speech and 'hate speech'

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Hateful speech and 'hate speech':

In recent weeks, debate about anger on the left has centered on two incidents: the now-infamous post-Iowa speech of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and ads posted on comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler. However, while Dean's speech was undeniably emotional, he was smiling, not angry. And the MoveOn ads, while abhorrent, were produced by individual citizens and only viewed by a few hundred visitors to the organization's Web site.

A focus on these incidents obscures a more important recent development for those concerned about the state of American political debate - the increasing amount of vitriolic rhetoric directed at the Bush administration from the Democratic presidential candidates.

For instance, Dean recently accused the President of going to war in Iraq because of a "psychological situation" with his father, former President George H.W. Bush. "This President is not interested in being a good president," the former Vermont governor said in an interview with Rolling Stone. "He's interested in some complicated psychological situation that he has with his father."

In a subsequent interview on Boston talk radio station WRKO, Dean denied he thinks Bush is mentally ill, but then speculated further about how Bush's relationship with his father may have led to war. "So the question is: Why did he really (invade Iraq)?" Dean stated. "I don't know the answer. But I know Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate the President's father. Maybe this was revenge. I don't know the answer."

Suggesting that the President went to war because of his father is a cheap shot. Dean is continuing a disturbing pattern in which commentators offer unfair speculation about politicians' motives and attribute their actions to psychological problems.

That, however, is hardly the only unfair rhetoric Dean has directed at the Bush administration. He also suggested that Bush's advisors are unpatriotic, stating in an interview with the New Yorker that the President is surrounded by a group of people "whose main allegiance is to each other and their ideology rather than to the United States." Similarly, Dean said last year that Attorney General John Ashcroft "is not a patriot."

Another Democratic candidate, former Gen. Wesley Clark, has also been making some nasty emotional attacks on the President, equating Bush's policies with the so-called "axis of evil."

"We've got a new axis of evil, and it's one our President himself created," Clark said in New Hampshire. "It's an axis of fiscal policy that threatens our future, foreign policy that threatens our security, and domestic policy that puts families dead last."

Of course, Clark has every right to oppose the President's policies as vehemently as he chooses. But the "axis of evil" phrase is an attempt to associate the President and his policies with North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein's former regime in Iraq. This is a classic political tactic: creating a negative association between one's opponents and universally despised enemies.

Clark's statement is similar to a call last year by fellow Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) for "regime change" in the United States, an ironic reference to previous U.S. policy toward Hussein's regime. Kerry has also compared Bush's administration to the Taliban, as did Dean in a joke last year.

Passionate disagreement is to be expected in a presidential election. But the Democratic candidates should avoid these unfounded speculations and emotional associations.

Unfortunately, the Republican National Committee has chosen to respond to these claims with a catchphrase of its own: "political hate speech." RNC chairman Ed Gillespie originally defined the term by lumping together comparisons of Bush to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein with harsh but hardly unprecedented charges that Bush is a phony, a liar and a failure. In this way, the RNC trades on the negative connotations of hate speech and associated laws against hate crimes to stigmatize virtually all harsh criticism of Bush as hateful and illegitimate.

In recent months, the RNC's usage of the term has become increasingly vague in an attempt to turn it into an ill-defined emotional catchphrase. Gillespie has urged his party to denounce Democrats as "the party of political hate speech" and recently dismissed an entire speech by former Vice President Al Gore as - you guessed it! - "political hate speech" without addressing a word of what Gore said.

"Psychological situations" and "political hate speech": Welcome to Election 2004.

While there is evidence the RNC has begun using such "political hate speech", an argument can be made that they are late comers to this party. Recall the repeated (and unanswered!) claims in 1995 by the DNC and members along the lines of:

  • The Republicans want to poison your drinking water

  • The Republicans want to starve your children

  • The Republicans want to kick old people out of nursing homes

  • or more recently:

  • I heard a theory that President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks ahead of time -- Howard Dean

  • Et cetera. It is not that I believe the RNC ought to stoop to the DNC levels, but after the rhetoric used in recent election cycles, is it any wonder that they have?

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